This post discusses the plot of “Arrival.” And though I’m normally somewhat skeptical of plot warnings, “Arrival” is the rare movie that is better seen totally cold.
Oscar season has its downsides, among them the fact that it means a host of terrific movies arrive all in a rush, straining the schedule of even the most dedicated filmgoer. But this year, that ordinarily vexed schedule has the upside of providing American audiences with both distraction and fodder as we process the results of a hugely consequential presidential election and attempt to re-position ourselves to face new realities.
In these circumstances, I found myself outstandingly grateful for “Arrival,” Denis Villeneuve’s excellent and unpredictable movie based on a short story by Ted Chiang about aliens who arrive at 12 locations on Earth, and Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), the linguist who is tasked with trying to learn how to speak to the creatures who have parked their vessel in Montana.
As Louise begins her approach to the aliens, who come to be known as Heptapods, “Arrival” explores all sorts of interesting ideas about the international order and cross-species communication that have plenty of relevance for our present moment. But it’s not so much the alien plot of “Arrival” that makes it the perfect movie for this moment, though, like the best movies about extraterrestrial life, “Arrival” captures a sense of profound dislocation that resonates powerfully with the shock and reorientation that characterize so many Americans’ response to the results of last week’s presidential election.
Instead, it’s the film’s twist: In the process of learning the Heptapods’ language, Louise engages so deeply with them that she begins to perceive time differently. Throughout the movie, she has been periodically overwhelmed by what seem to be memories of her daughter Hannah (played at various ages by Jadyn Malone, Carmela Nossa Guizzo, Abigail Pniowsky and Julia Scarlett Dan), who has died of a rare disease. Were that actually the case, Louise would be in good company with all the women from cinematic history who have turned to space as a response to grief, or as a way to fulfill their roles as mothers.
But “Arrival” is something more complicated. As we — and Louise — eventually learn, her mastery of the Heptapods’ language is giving her access to glimpses of her own future, first involuntarily, and later in ways that she can control. The visions she’s seeing of her daughter in which Hannah grows up, and in her teenage years sickens and dies, are not Louise’s past. They’re what is to come.
And at the end of the movie, knowing that Hannah will die; knowing that Hannah’s father, Ian (Jeremy Renner), will leave Louise once he learns that Louise was aware that Hannah would not live to adulthood, Louise faces her own future and proceeds into it bravely and unflinchingly. She loves Ian and parents Hannah with joy and passion. Despite recognizing the pain that will follow from those decisions, she makes them anyway, not because she intends to cause Hannah or Ian pain, but because she recognizes that beauty and goodness will result from her choices, too.
There’s nothing explicitly political about Louise’s courage, and in fact, the most sharply political note in “Arrival,” an Alex Jones-like figure who rails against the Heptapods, is a misstep that detracts from the movie’s powerful strangeness. But sometimes in moments of great trouble, the most powerful tonics aren’t direct commentaries on the tragedies of the age. Rather, they’re stories that take us out of our own circumstances and then return us to ourselves, fortified with the qualities we need to survive and thrive on our reentry.
“Arrival” is the sort of movie that serves as a reminder of what art can do that politics cannot. That it arrived in theaters the weekend after the presidential election is fortuitous, not foreordained. It’s not a take, it’s not commentary, it’s not about the specific pall that has befallen us. But “Arrival” transported me at a moment when I badly needed a reprieve, and left me determined to try to be a certain, better kind of person, no matter that the challenges before me are more quotidian than Louise’s intergalactic leap. “Arrival” touched down, gently and beautifully, at precisely the time I needed it most.